Sri Lanka, Part One


I’m going to start a new website/blog soon (about time!) but before I do that, I wanted to finish off here with one final installment (in two parts) – Sri Lanka!

Coco and I spent a few weeks there last December, almost by accident really. We were all set to travel to northern India, but due to extra horrendous air pollution and Coco’s propensity for developing respiratory issues even in squeaky clean Sydney, we changed our plans at the last minute and headed south to Sri Lanka instead.

Lightening quick history for those curious: Way old (125,000 years), invaded by the Portuguese (1500s), then the Dutch (1600s), then the English (1800s). Population wise, Sri Lankan people are a diverse lot, but mainly Sinhalese with a large Tamil minority. These two groups didn’t get on for a while (30 years) but since 2009, when the civil war ended, things are decidedly better.

Okay, shall we saunter, very slowly, in supremely sultry Sri Lanka …

After about a four hour drive from Colombo, we arrived at our first destination – nowhere. But a very beautiful, calming nowhere.


the view of nothing is everything






touching the earth lightly :: 1






touching the earth lightly :: 2






Santani, the ‘minimalist luxury’ resort we’d landed at, is undoubtedly a beautiful place. But in my rush to book last minute accommodation after India fell through, I may not have fully understood the offering – very chilled, with a focus on health and wellness. After a day of being ‘nowhere’, I have to be honest – I needed to be somewhere.

So we went daytripping, to the nearby city of Kandy, Sri Lanka’s ancient capital. As you might remember, I’m not a great tourist and I generally don’t like sight-seeing, but it was either that or more ‘relaxing’. First stop, a big deal in the Buddhist world, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. We didn’t spy the tooth of Buddha but I did meet this beautiful woman there.


dressed for puja at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic






there’s always a queue to see the Sacred Tooth Relic






We also stuck our noses into Kandy’s Royal Botanical Gardens. A huge sprawling place full of giant, ancient trees.


land of giant trees :: 1






land of giant trees :: 2






land of giant trees :: 3






practising their English on Coco






above ground roots?






Sri Lanka has an incredible variety of flora, as the lovely Dileepa back at the resort had told us. It’s biodiversity heaven apparently, with more than 3,000 different plant species.


Dileepa, the 20 year old naturalist






After our daytripping we did a bit more relaxing (yawn), and then headed north to see the ancient rock and palace fortress of Sigiriya, a UNESCO listed world heritage site. We climbed up about 800 of its 1,200 stairs, forgoing the final ‘Lion Staircase’ – in the heat, dripping with sweat from the unbelievable humidity, that was plenty, believe me.


ancient rock fortress ahead






1,500 year old water gardens






the (slow) ascent of man






Sigiriya’s spiral spin-out






we meet again






the final assault up the Lion Staircase. or not






The other highlight was a visit to Minneriya National Park to see elephants roaming wild. While some elephant ‘attractions’ in Sri Lanka chain their star performers, these elephants are free to wander wherever they like.

captured on camera but free to roam






where elephants have right of way






mum and the two kids


I like to think she’s smiling










elephant spotting






Coco on safari






From there, we drove south through the tea plantation hills, on our way down to the coast.


tea for as far as the eye can see












moody mountains






After spending hours and hours winding down from the hills through lush green forest, it’s quite something to finally reach the coast and Sri Lanka’s beautiful beaches. We stayed in Tangalle, where the sand is a brilliant white and in the middle of the day, burning hot.


white hot :: 1






white hot :: 2






After Tangalle, we travelled west to Galle, and went on another ‘safari’, only this time on a river.


river life :: 1






river life :: 2






river life :: 3






corner shop






greetings, welcome to Temple Island






The proximity to water, from the beaches to the rivers, is very much part of Sri Lanka’s appeal. But in 2004, this proximity proved deadly when a massive tsunami hit, killing more than 30,000. People had no warning whatsoever – one minute it was life as normal, and the next, the world turned upside down.


before and after the tsunami hit






It was 14 years ago, yet you can still see signs of the devastation along the coast in the form of abandoned, ruined homes.


everything went underwater






the jungle reclaims its territory






The day I visited this area just outside Galle, I was on my own. It was incredibly eerie and sad, wandering around these homes, imagining them once filled with happy families and wondering what happened to them, if they managed to get out alive.


home, once upon a time :: 1






home, once upon a time :: 2






Just as I was going to leave, I noticed some other homes around the corner that were in much better shape and still inhabited. As I approached one, a lovely woman holding her baby came out to greet me. She was so warm and welcoming, and I felt so happy that she and her husband had survived the unimaginable ordeal – and had gone on to produce a beautiful child.


home, still :: 1






We chatted for a while, before a gaggle of kids swarmed around us. I don’t know how old they were but most of them looked younger than 14 – for them, a tsunami is something they’ve only ever heard or read about. I so hope they never get to experience it firsthand.


home, still :: 2






new life after the tsunami :: 1






new life after the tsunami :: 2






pray the tsunami never happens again






Stay tuned for the second part of Sri Lanka soon!



Prospect Park South

PPS intro


Bit late and a little early but Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Hope it was and will be a wonderful time.

To the final NY post before we jump on yet another plane to fly to… Let me get to that. First, let’s wander around a neighbourhood I had no intention of doing – but am very glad I did.

Remember last week I said I wanted to see how the ‘tale of two cities’ was going by exploring a neighbourhood that barely noticed Hurricane Sandy and then one that most definitely did? Well, after doing the UWS as the former, we were all set to do the latter by trekking out to the Rockaways. But then I was told by someone who’d recently been out there that it wouldn’t be easy to actually photograph the aftermath of the storm because so much of it had been cleared, and I was better off going somewhere like Coney Island, where perhaps I’d see more.

So off we went to Coney Island – but found little there too. All the areas that were affected by the hurricane face real long-term problems – you just can’t see them easily.

As much as I’d like to have documented a neighbourhood struggling to regroup, I decided to cut my losses and go to plan B – a tiny neighbourhood called Prospect Park South in Brooklyn.

If you ask the average New Yorker about PPS, they’re likely to say, “Where?”. Admittedly it’s small – around six by two blocks with just 206 homes – but it packs a punch for a micro-neighbourhood. Because most of the houses here are big. In some cases, huge.

Some facts. PPS was designed by developer Dean Alvord at the turn of last century as a piece of “country in the city”, just south of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. But instead of building humble cooker-cutter cottages Alvord dreamed up an eclectic, whimsical and somewhat crazy mix of Colonial, Queen Anne, Italianate, French Renaissance, Japanese, Elizabethan and Jacobean. I can only imagine this was a man who wore interesting suits.

The really amazing thing is that if Alvord could walk the streets of his creation today, he’d barely notice any changes. The community who live here are pro-preservation and in 1978 PPS was designated a historic district. Something Miles the artist-preservationist from last week’s post would’ve no doubt raised a glass to.

Let’s stroll…


Part 1: Where did Brooklyn go?

Like I said, first we visited Coney Island, a low lying area of NY and one that was affected quite badly by the storm surge. Not that you’d know it if you just glanced at the place. On a day where there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, it was easy to think that the hurricane had never happened.



what hurricane?

what hurricane? :: 1





Maybe a little dirtier than normal…



what hurricane? :: 2

what hurricane? :: 2





But that was about all you could see – sure there was a Cyclone there, but that was just one of the rides. And even it was still standing after the storm. So we trotted off to Prospect Park South for an entirely different experience.



we trotted off to Prospect Park South

we trotted off to Prospect Park South





It’s so weird. You exit the subway at Church Avenue, which is kind of down at heel. You walk a little and then suddenly you realise you’ve crossed an invisible line, one that separates normal Brooklyn and Prospect Park South…



Church Avenue, where you 'leave' NY to cross into another world

Church Avenue, where you ‘leave’ NY to cross into another world





that's a house?!

that’s a house?!





As I said, there are about 200 homes here, in varying states ranging from pristine to those in need of repair. Because as much as the people who live here adore their old homes, they cost an enormous amount to maintain. The one below, for example, is apparently costing its owner over a million just to bring it back to life. These homes are clearly more than a roof over one’s head – they’re love affairs.



being "loved back" to life

being “loved back” to life





I was lucky enough to meet the woman they call the “Queen” of the neighbourhood, Mary Kay Gallagher. Not long after moving into the area almost 50 years ago with her husband and six kids, she became the neighbourhood’s only real estate broker – if you wanted to buy in PPS, you had to make it past Mary Kay. She also played a huge role in getting the landmark designation through in 1979 and is active in the local resident’s group, the PPS Association. At 92 she’s sharp as a tack and still running her real estate business, although now her grand-daughter is her “legs”. How many homes come onto the market each year, I asked her? “Ten would be a good year”. And the price? “Around 1.5”. Cheap by Sydney standards.



the Queen of Prospect Park South, Mary Kay Gallagher

the Queen of Prospect Park South, Mary Kay Gallagher





surveying her kingdom

surveying her kingdom





So who lives here, aside from Mary Kay? Things have changed a little from the early 1900s when you had to be of a certain type. Alvord’s comments in the original prospectus were: “In fixing upon a location for a home, it is pleasant to live where wife and children, in going to and fro, are not subjected to the annoyance of contact with the undesirable elements of society”.

But you still have to be wealthy enough to afford both the initial purchase price as well as the hefty ongoing costs. Which might explain why the area has always had a huge number of doctors and still does – like Chris, who despite his flamboyant style of dress, is an MD, living in one of the more moderately sized homes with his wife and daughter.



Chris the doctor

Chris the doctor





Dan, who lives down the road from Chris, with his wife and two boys, isn’t a doctor. But he bought a famous surgeon’s house just over three years ago. He’d spent years searching for the right house in the area – and tried Mark Kay Gallagher’s patience in the process. In the end she rang him and said, “Dan, I’ve showed you loads of houses. I’m going to show you one more and if you don’t like it, never call me again”.

Luckily for both of them, Dan loved the last house she showed him. It wasn’t a mansion – because Dan didn’t want anything too big – and it was a great deal. While it’s not the grandest or prettiest, Dan’s completely in love with both the neighbourhood and his home – “We live in a palace. We have chooks and I grow my own fruit and vegetables out the back. There’s space for the boys to run around and it’s really safe. The Upper West Side where we used to live couldn’t have given us any of this.”



room to move - Nathan and Calvin :: 1

room to move – Nathan and Calvin :: 1





room to move - Nathan and Calvin :: 2

room to move – Nathan and Calvin :: 2





happy in their hood

happy in their hood





"We live in a palace. A palace with chooks" - Dan

“We live in a palace. A palace with chooks” – Dan





Part 2: The Japanese House

My favourite house out of the 200 is the one everyone calls “The Japanese house”. Built in 1902, it looks so out of place in Brooklyn, NY, it isn’t funny. But that’s what’s so cool about it. What was Alvord thinking?



the Japanese House :: 1

the Japanese House :: 1





the Japanese House :: 2

the Japanese House :: 2





the Japanese House :: 3

the Japanese House :: 3





Given the temple-like exterior you almost expect to walk into a zen-like, sparsely decorated interior. But no. The home of Gloria Fischer and her late husband, Albert, is anything but sparse. They’ve lived here for 40 years and have been collecting things from all over the world for just as long.



40 years of collecting later :: 1

40 years of collecting later :: 1





40 years of collecting later :: 2

40 years of collecting later :: 2





I loved Gloria. Like Mary Kay Gallagher, she ain’t a wallflower. But once they work out you’re not a total idiot, it’s just fine. Then they’re only a little bit scary.









"My house is very much part of me, yes"

“My house is very much part of me, yes”





Like me, Gloria loves juxtaposing the unexpected – as must have Alvord. Why else would he have plonked a Japanese house right next door to a Greek one?



Gloria's Greek neighbour

Gloria’s Greek neighbour





Part 3: Showing their age

Unlike the 100+ year old homes that are well maintained, there are a handful of ones in the neighbourhood that have let themselves go a little. The result varies – some look lovely in their old age, others more than a little spooky.

I particularly like the one where an entire side is covered in some sort of vine. It’s right next door to the one that’s being “loved back to life” – whereas with this one nature is busy reclaiming its ground.



nature reclaims its ground :: 1

nature reclaims its ground :: 1





nature reclaims its ground :: 2

nature reclaims its ground :: 2





bird on a branch

bird on a branch





And I’m intrigued by the spooky house down the road that is apparently used a lot for films – spooky films I’m sure.



the spooky place

the spooky place





Part 4: The sage green house

Now what I haven’t told you is that I’ve been to PPS before, many times in fact. Because this is where the sister of our friend Chris from the UWS lives – Mary K, with her husband, Bill, and their three kids. Had I not come here with Chris many years ago, I would probably never have known about it either.

When plan A fell through this week – to visit an area affected by the hurricane – I immediately thought of PPS. I’ve always loved it and since this was where we were going to spend Christmas eve and morning, it made sense.

Plus we were invited to their annual Caroling Party a few days before Christmas, where around 80 of their friends pile into their home to make merry around the piano.

A perfect opportunity to test out something I’ve never tried before – a flash!



109 years old and still going strong

109 years old and still going strong





Silent Night, not - the Caroling Party

Silent Night, not – the Caroling Party





The house isn’t the biggest in PPS but it’s plenty big enough to keep every age group happy: the adults downstairs, the teenagers on the third floor and the kids, on the second floor in the TV room or running up and down wherever they fancied.



the teenagers room

the teenagers room





the kids room :: 1

the kids room :: 1





the kids room :: 2

the kids room :: 2





the chill-out room

the chill-out room





Previously always opposed to using a flash, I decided to make a feature of it and have some fun. Helped along no doubt by the malted red wine Mary K insist I try.



engaged couple No 1

engaged couple No 1





engaged couple No 2

engaged couple No 2





1am and still singing

1am and still singing





Part 5: Christmas morning

Coco and I joined Chris and Mary K’s family for Christmas eve dinner and then stayed overnight. Christmas morning was no different to any over – the kids are awake at the crack of dawn, dragging bleary eyed adults downstairs to the tree. A flurry of present giving and then everyone kind of flops.

Unless there’s a pesky woman with a camera ushering you out the door for a Christmas morning shot.



Christmas morning - Ellie and Audrey

Christmas morning – Ellie and Audrey





no snow but at least the sun is shining

no snow but at least the sun is shining





Coco and I had time for one last look around the lovely old house and then it was time to thank Mary K and everyone, and head back to the UWS.



looking down from the third floor - PPS, where even the traffic island is beautiful

looking down from the third floor – PPS, where even the traffic island is beautiful





The Wrap

People don’t come to Prospect Park South for the interesting street life – there is none. They come because of the houses.

“I, Home Owner, do take thee house… in sickness and in health, till death – or lack of funds to keep you in new clapboard and shingles, dormer windows, stained glass, and the odd Greek column or two – do us part.”

They’re commitments, often life-long ones. And they must be buggers to heat. But what houses they are.




Coco's favourite plaything on Christmas morning - Moo, a rescue kitten from the hurricane

Coco’s favourite plaything on Christmas morning – Moo, a rescue kitten from the hurricane




On the ‘home front’

‘Christmas in NY’ is quite something. What with all the shows, the ice-skating, the walks in Central Park and along Fifth Avenue. Not that we’ve done any of that – no time I’m afraid. As it was, just adding a few social events into the mix has meant I’m yet again running late, later than usual even.

But it was a wonderful thing to spend it with our lovely friends – many thanks (again) Chris, Mary K, Bill, Ellie, Audrey and Quentin. 

And although my ‘tale of two cities’ didn’t pan out quite as I would’ve liked, I loved the two neighbourhoods we ended up exploring.

Tomorrow morning Coco and I are on the move once again. After much deliberation – so much – I’ve finally fixed on the next three weeks of this project. New Zealand!

Remember we had to use our existing Round the World tickets back to Sydney before 30 December? So just as exciting as the prospect of seeing NZ for the first time is that we’ll be home in Sydney on Sunday morning! Oh my god. Home. H.O.M.E. I actually can’t believe it!

Our Round the World tickets take us from LA to Sydney and then we’ll catch our breath for two days before catching a short flight to Auckland. So the first post will be the end of next week hopefully.

And after New Zealand? By then we should be up to ‘Suburb’ No 49 with only three more to go. Three! Of course I don’t quite know exactly where they’ll be – but between now and then I’m sure my brain will let me know.


This suburb has been brought to you by Sarah Trew

See you next week.


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Buy the 52 Suburbs Book online

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